Nunavut premier defends GN flip-flop on caribou protection
Iqaluit MLA accuses government of “fear mongering” and “backroom deals”
Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna tried to drive home his government’s approach to balancing economic development and wildlife protection March 9 in a strongly-worded minister’s statement delivered in the legislative assembly.
But Iqaluit-Sinaa MLA Paul Okalik challenged Taptuna later that day during question period: Okalik accused the premier of using scare tactics against Kivallirmiut for suggesting that full protection for core caribou calving grounds might somehow jeopardize a proposed power transmission line from Manitoba.
“I just don’t appreciate fear mongering. I don’t like that used in our assembly,” Okalik told media March 9, after using similar language in the legislature.
“I’m just appalled that our own government would try to scare us from trying to protect caribou habitat.”
The testy political exchange followed news this week that the Nunavut government no longer supports protected area status within the Draft Nunavut Land Use Plan for core caribou calving grounds and other sensitive caribou habitat.
The Nunavut cabinet adopted the new position after a recent meeting, reversing its earlier support for protected area status for core caribou calving grounds.
Instead, Taptuna said those areas already have protection under land claim-created bodies such as the Nunavut Impact Review Board, which requires mining companies, for example, to submit environmental impact assessment reviews for proposed developments.
The NIRB also sets out the mitigation measures that companies must perform to get a project certificate to operate in Nunavut, Taptuna said.
This week, Nunavut Environment Minister Johnny Mike said he believes most Nunavummiut support this balanced approach to development and conservation.
But wildlife protection groups, regular MLAs, as well as hunters and trappers organizations were caught off guard March 7, when a senior bureaucrat in Nunavut’s environment department delivered the government’s new position on caribou protection during a public meeting organized by the Nunavut Planning Commission.
In an effort to quell rising opposition, Taptuna assured the legislative assembly March 9 that the GN will not support projects that have a negative impact on wildlife that cannot be mitigated.
“We want to engage the regulatory process and ensure regulators are able to do the job they are tasked with under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement,” Taptuna said in his March 9 minister’s statement.
“Development projects can ultimately be rejected by the regulatory bodies and that is why it is important to allow for developers to engage in that process,” he said. “It is up to Inuit to decide what developments occur on our lands.”
Taptuna provided an example: the Hudson Bay Roundtable wants to move forward with feasibility studies on an electrical transmission line from Manitoba to the Kivalliq region — a long-awaited infrastructure project that would dramatically reduce the cost of power in Nunavut.
Should that project fall within calving grounds and corridors, it would require a full regulatory review and public consultations, Taptuna said, which would likely lead to restrictions on the project to protect natural habitat.
That’s the current regime and it’s working fine, the premier suggested.
“Prohibition on calving and post-calving grounds with seasonal restrictions would rule out any kind of review of a project. It means there may be no transmission line for the Kivalliq Region,” Taptuna said.
“I want to be clear Mr. Speaker, restrictions ensures a full project review takes place. Prohibition means there would be no review and no potential for development.”
Okalik took issue with that.
“There’s no plan in place that I see, or maps that I see, that would prevent that. So it’s just a scenario to use to try and scare members from trying to protect caribou habitat,” Okalik told media.
Okalik said that calving grounds comprise about six per cent of Nunavut’s massive land area, and he questioned why the government couldn’t be satisfied with developing the remaining 94 per cent.
“I was disappointed. Caribou in our territory are under tremendous stress. On our [Baffin] Island, we are under a strict quota. We get our caribou largely from the Kivalliq and we are concerned that if they don’t have any left, where will we get our caribou? I support my colleagues who are quite concerned.”
Those colleagues include Kivalliq MLAs Tom Sammurtok and Simeon Mikkungwak, both of whom relayed concerns from their constituents March 7.
In a letter to the GN, the Kivalliq Wildlife Board called the policy change “a very irresponsible decision.”
The organization also chided the government for reaching their decision without consulting harvesting groups.
Okalik was similarly critical, saying he was not part of that “backroom deal that we don’t know anything about.”
Okalik was a member of Taptuna’s cabinet, but he resigned March 3 as minister to sit as a regular MLA.
The World Wildlife Fund-Canada expressed its “disappointment” in the GN’s change of direction March 9, saying it fails to recognize that caribou herd numbers are already in decline.
“Science-based evidence and local knowledge tells us that even a small disturbance on a calving ground can cause mothers to fail to reproduce, to abandon their calves, and to devote less time to eating, resulting in a weakened body condition,” said Paul Crowley, vice-president of Arctic conservation at WWF-Canada, in a March 8 release.
“We continue to stand with the regional wildlife organizations, who represent the hunters and trappers organizations of Nunavut, calling for the moratorium of mining activities in Nunavut’s caribou calving grounds.”
Canadian barren-land caribou populations are on the decline, WWF-Canada said: The Bluenose East herd has declined nearly 80 per cent, to fewer than 40,000 animals over the last decade.
Another wildlife protection group sounded the alarm last week, saying the Qamanirjuaq caribou herd in Kivalliq is on the verge of dipping below sustainable harvesting levels.
That herd’s population dropped to 264,000 in 2015, according to GN surveys, down from 348,000 in 2009, and earlier estimates of 500,000.